Ohio Democratic Party Chief Says Perfect Storm Coming for Obama, Clinton

OhioNews Bureau

ONB COLUMBUS: Settled into my seat in the press filing room at the Wolstein Center at Cleveland State University in downtown Cleveland, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party (ODP) and two of his key party officials brief members of the media on the strengths of the ODP and why the Democratic candidate for president will turn our state blue later this year.

Chris Redfern, a sitting member of the Ohio House who took the reins of the ODP in 2005, said Ohio’s working familiesRedfernRedfern have been “hit hard by Washington’s unsound and unbalanced economic policies, job-killing trade agreements, soaring health insurance premiums, rising energy costs and unchecked predatory lenders.”

Notwithstanding these challenges, Redfern said Ohioans have good reason to be optimistic in 2008 because the party has two strong leaders to choose from, “both of whom will bring real change to our country.”

Buoyed by the big gains made in 2006, when Ohio elected Democrats to the offices of governor, attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer, and won seven seats in the Ohio House, Redfern said his party can become the majority party in the House with only four more seats.

“The trend is toward the Democratic Party,” he said of his belief that Ohioans are open to more dialogue from Democrats based on the hundreds of thousands of voters who voted for President Bush in 2004 but who switched in 2006 to Ted Strickland and Sherrod Brown. Refusing to concede that Ohio is a natural “red” state, Redfern said the state has always been moderate and that with the people, money and use of new technology, Ohio will go Democratic in November.

Doug Kelly, ODP’s executive director, and John Hagner, the Kelly, HagnerKelly, Hagnerparty’s targeting director who won acclaim for navigating multi-term Congressman Sherrod Brown to a stunning win over Republican Mike DeWine, outlined why the ODP has high hopes for which either candidates, Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton, becomes their party’s standard bearer.

The title of their collective presentation, “An opportunity to win the White House and build a lasting Democratic majority in Ohio,” gave a detailed picture of why the ODP, which had only five employees when Redfern took it over in 2005 but has 42 now, will be able to deliver in categories including a ground game, field strategy and confidence.

A super delegate himself, Redfern said he will appoint two more, maybe as soon as the end of Ohio’s March 4th primary.

Kelly’s PowerPoint presentation showed how ODP’s technology resources are microscoped down to the community level and even to individual households.

With a new statewide team in place after their jubilant wins in 2006, Kelly said the ODP is ready to energize a wide array of groups to build a stronger state party organization.

He pointed with great pride and optimism to 1,005,302 Ohio voters who cast their ballot for President Bush in 2004 but who switched their vote to Strickland and Brown in 2006.

“We’ve invested early, heavily and strategically into infrastructure that wins elections,” Kelly said, adding that ODP’s approach has been to “build from the bottom up, not top down, and that collaborative approaches using data, tools, technology and strategic assistance” will be the winning recipe in the fall.

Kelly said he no county will be left behind in the fall, a big change in strategy from John Kerry’s failed campaign in 2004 that lost 72 counties. “We know the money is going to be there,” he said, of the resources that will be used to “identify our candidates on our terms instead of waiting for Republicans to do it.”

The ODP, Kelly said, is the first state Democratic party to hire a full-time election protection director, a move he said will broaden the base of support and allow efforts to “move beyond candidates and personalities to issues and local communities.”

Hanger, ODP’s targeting director, said there is little precedent for this election, but emphasized that Ohio will again be a key state to win, one equivalent in electoral delegates to various combinations of other states like Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Missouri, Iowa, Arkansas, Tennessee or West Virginia.

While Kerry lost 72 counties in 2004, Hanger noted that Strickland carried 72 and Brown carried 30 in 2006. For Democrats, the votes are richest north of the Ohio Turnpike, along Lake Erie, and especially in Cuyahoga County, the state’s most populous county where a lot of votes can offset losses in dozens of rural counties elsewhere.

Key to the fall’s election is the ability of ODP to cut their losses in exurban counties, which Brown and Strickland lost. “They may not be in play for us, but we can increase our margins in them,” Hanger, who said he’s only able to answer questions that pertain to counting. Describing how far Democrats have come since they ceded the political field to Republicans over a 16-year period, Hanger said, ”We’ve taken a decisive disadvantage with Republicans and turned it into a draw.”

Asked about the decision to invest party funds into exurban counties that typically lean Republican, Kelly said issues like stem cell research, the economy, health care and trade policies are good targeted messages to these voters. “Every vote adds up and we’ll take them where we can get them,” he said. “We can’t write off parts of the state. We need to talk to individual voters and to the issues that matter to them,” Hanger said, citing the example of AK Steel, a facility that is closing, on nearby communities like Middletown and a deeply Republican county like Butler, where President Bush took nearly 70 percent of the 2004 vote.

Kelly said Democrats will campaign in all counties, and drew upon the experience of Gov. Strickland, who did numerous bus trips into counties that Democrats had forsaken to Republicans. “We’re not going to take these counties for granted,” he said. They also talked about getting the media jump on Republicans, as Strickland did on his Republican challenger in 2004, Ken Blackwell, who they said “went crazy” when Strickland started off with a wave of advertisements on Ohio Christian radio stations. “It stopped any movement towards Blackwell and let listeners see Strickland in different light,” Kelly said.

John Michael Spinelli is a former Ohio Statehouse government and political reporter and business columnist. He now serves as the OhioNews Bureau Chief for ePluribus Media Journal. Find ONB archives here.

If readers have a news tip or story idea about Ohio politics or government, contact the OhioNews Bureau at: ohionews@epluribusmedia.org

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Important to keep an eye on all things Ohio this election year... especially the voting machines!